How to Outsmart a Car Salesman

  • By: Sean Cooper

No matter how often you change your car, everybody wants to know how to outsmart a car salesman (or woman) to get the best deal they possibly can, but some buyers get so obsessed with the numbers they can forget they’re dealing with a human being.

As a former car salesman myself, I decided to look online to see what information is out there for getting a good deal on a new car these days. Much of it misses some critical advice that I will give you here right now. Yes, you do still need to have a good grasp of the numbers, but there’s much more to talking down a new car salesperson than trying to beat them at their own game.

Facts of life when dealing with car salespeople

Let’s face it; a car sales executive is selling cars every day that they’re at work, and you’re probably only buying one once every few years or so. That doesn’t mean you’ve no chance to outsmart a car salesman, but you need to be realistic with your expectations. If you go into a dealership expecting to get one over on the sales exec, you’re probably setting yourself up for a fall.

Remember, your focus should be on getting the best deal and the right deal for you, so focus on that as your primary objective. I’m not saying you can’t do two things at once, and I’m certainly not trying to belittle you. But if you go into the sale process seeing it as a fight between you and the dealership, you’re probably going to come out on the losing side 99 times out of 100.

Be nice!

A lot of sales training focuses on building a relationship with the customer. If there’s one tactic you need to think about and positively embrace to get a good deal for yourself, it has to be developing a good relationship with the salesperson.

The salesperson you end up dealing with could be a complete novice, a hard-nosed experienced professional, or anything in between. Unless you’re unlucky enough to get a real shark, which is increasingly rare these days, you should see them as an ally and your new friend. If they grind your gears, you’re unlikely to buy from them, but if you grind their gears, they’re unlikely to give you the best deal they potentially could.

Just think about it for a minute. If you walk into a store and need some help from a staff member and they’re moody, unhelpful, and uncommunicative, what chance will you buy anything? I’d say they’re pretty slim at best.

I’m not saying be gushing and false, but I am saying be polite, friendly, pleasant, and natural. Listen to what the person has to say and ask any questions you have.

The wrong customer attitude and the consequences – a true story

A dealership I used to work in had an open upstairs mezzanine where the sales team worked when not dealing with customers, so we could hear everything going on downstairs. An especially memorable couple came in one day, and here’s what happened.

I was the sales manager, and one of my relatively inexperienced sales execs went to greet them. The husband was the one who opened the conversation, and he said hello and was perfectly okay at the start. The sales exec offered them a coffee and took them to sit down to take some details. Unfortunately, that’s where everything started to go wrong.

Before he sat down, the gentleman said he wanted to get something straight. He then went on to tell the sales exec how he wouldn’t be making a penny out of them that day because he was going to drive the hardest of hard bargains. Even though that would have been bad enough, he didn’t stop there. He then explained to the salesman that when he’d finished with him, his wife would start, and by the time she’d finished, the dealership would probably be losing money on the deal.

You might not be surprised to learn we offered them well below rock bottom price for their trade-in and not a dollar discount off the car they were interested in buying. Even if they’d agreed to our terrible offer, we’d still have found another reason to avoid a deal. Some people are just not worth the bother.

The right attitude – and the positive result

A few days earlier, a guy had come in wanting to buy the entry model of one of our luxury SUVs for his business. He explained that he’d love a higher spec model, but it was stretching his budget to the limited even to afford the entry model, but he needed the seven seats and the off-road capability.

The guy was polite, friendly, and engagingly genuine, and it made my salesman and myself feel like helpers or facilitators rather than salespeople. The buyer wanted to finance the new SUV, but his budget wasn’t quite enough to do a deal at what we considered a fair price. After a lot of negotiation, I took every cent of profit out of the vehicle and did the finance at cost.

It was still a stretch for him, and he didn’t say yes there and then. The next day he called to see if there was anything else we could do, but I told him the whole story of what I was already doing for him and that there genuinely wasn’t any more left to give. I even offered to show him the invoice from the manufacturer for the SUV he wanted to buy to prove we were selling at cost.

He then said yes, came in, and did the paperwork, and that unit helped me hit a monthly and quarterly sales target that got me my bonus and some holiday vouchers. I didn’t know that his no-profit deal would mean hitting my target when I did it, but it’s a great example of a good deal that worked out right for everyone. If he hadn’t been as lovely and genuine as he was, I wouldn’t have given him a deal anywhere near as good as I did.

Don’t rush things

Sales execs are still supposed to work to a sales process, and it’s a process that takes time from beginning to end. If you walk into a dealership and the first thing you say is that you haven’t got time, don’t expect to be walking away in a few minutes with a killer deal. Even a proper appraisal of your trade-in alone should take about 15 minutes, so walking in and asking how much for your trade-in before they’ve even seen it will only put the dealer’s back up. Managing to outsmart a car salesman isn’t the endgame here; getting the best deal is what’s most important.

It’s okay to hurry things along a little, but if you expect to do a deal from beginning to end in 10 minutes, you’d be better off shopping exclusively online and taking your chances. Tell the sales exec you understand they have a process to follow but that if they could move it along a little, you’d appreciate it.

Tell the truth – but don’t give too much away

Without clamming up and appearing obstructive, try not to give too much away about how much you want to spend or how much you want for your trade-in. Like everyone else, you’d like the best possible price for your trade-in and the lowest price possible on the car you’re looking to buy, and say it with a smile.

If you feel you have to give something away, tell them a budget that’s so wide it doesn’t give much away. If your actual budget is $350-$400 per month, say that it’s between $200 and $450 per month. You have to understand that the sales exec will have to give the sales manager some degree of commitment to buy from you before they get serious about putting a genuine deal together.

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

Things you really should not do

I’ve just been looking at a couple of high-ranking websites that claim to be telling readers how to negotiate a car deal with a dealership or outsmart a car salesman, and I’m scratching my head to imagine who could have possibly written such garbage. One of the lists of things to do should really have been a list of what not to do, so let me share it with you and explain how to go about things the correct way. Here are some things you should never do:

  • Flash the cash – Producing an envelope stuffed with cash and putting it on the desk won’t do you any good and will just make you look like a fool. If you’re dealing with a dodgy independent used car dealer who sells cars for a couple of thousand dollars, then perhaps it could have some benefit, but this is an absolute no-no at a franchise dealership.
  • Lie about other buyers – Don’t try telling them you know they can do better because they did a better deal in the past for a friend or neighbor unless it’s true and they did. You’ll be surprised how well some of them remember previous customers, and if they start asking in-depth questions and you’re telling little white lies, they’ll soon know.
  • Quote prices from online resources – This is a bit of a grey area these days, but I’m still going to warn you. Do as much research on prices for new cars and valuations for your trade-in as you can before you go to buy, but don’t go quoting these figures as gospel. Some online resources are excellent and highly accurate, but some are just fighting for clicks and traffic and will tell you what you want to hear. Unless you know enough to be able to tell a respected resource from a click-bait site, keep those figures to yourself and just use them as a rough guide.
  • Taking a wingman – I’m not saying you must go alone to buy a car, but taking someone purely as a wingman because they know a bit about cars could be counter-productive. If it’s a used car you’re looking at, and your friend is an auto technician, then fair enough. But if it’s a new car, they’re not going to be any use unless they know about sales. You’re not in control of what someone else is going to say, and they could just as quickly drop you right in it as to be of any quantifiable help.
  • Emotional sob story – The guy I mentioned above who got a cost-price deal on a luxury SUV didn’t give me a sob story; he was just being honest about his budget and needs. Trying to tug on the heartstrings of a sales exec is very unlikely to wash, and that’s because they probably won’t believe you, even if you’re telling the truth. After all, this is a purely financial transaction and nothing else.
  • Lie about better offers you’ve had – If you have had a better offer somewhere else on the exact vehicle, then pull out an official quote as a negotiating tool. Do not, under any circumstances, concoct a fictitious offer from another dealer to try and get the deal you think you should have. The chances are you don’t know what the best possible deal available for that model really is, and if your claim is ridiculously low, the sales exec will know you’re making it up, and then your credibility is shot.

These are the things you shouldn’t do when you next go to buy a car and a couple that you should. If you follow this advice, you shouldn’t go too far wrong. However, you need to know some tricks and tactics that I cover in another article that are not as common as they used to be but still exist in the murkier areas of the auto business.